The author who played with fire
2010, 327 pages, $18
After writing three books of poetry, a short story collection and a children’s book, one would think Juliet S. Kono would be pretty confident about writing a novel. Surprisingly, and refreshingly, she has a very modest perspective on her first long work, Anshu.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” Kono says. “Poets usually just stay in poetry. For me it was [difficult], I really didn’t know how to structure this. It was a mess at the beginning.”
The “mess” turned out to be a novel of perceptive quality and subtle nuance about Himiko Aoki, a pregnant teenager in Hilo who moves to Tokyo in 1941, right before the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The book took Kono more than ten years to write. Unlike most works of this genre, the main character isn’t autobiographical.
Kono says the story and its characters are “a composite of different people.” The only thing in common she seems to have with her main character is a childhood penchant for being a firebug and setting things aflame. These days though, the soft-spoken Kono rarely even lights candles.
Besides the characters, imagery is one of the novel’s strongest aspects, but when the subject comes up in the interview, Kono proves she is her own worst critic. When asked what the difference is between writing poetry and longer prose works, she responds, perhaps again with modesty, that she put too much imagery in the book’s initial drafts.
“It stops the story from progressing because you think about the image and you go ‘Oh okay, now where was I?’”
Regardless of the previous drafts’ overflow of images, Kono is satisfied with the final product itself.
In addition to basking in the book’s vivid imagery, Kono, an instructor at Leeward Community College, as well as a Buddhist priest (she recently received her ordination), hopes that after reading Anshu, readers will “think about peace and hope, and that we work toward it because this is a real possibility.”
The teacher side of her has this advice for budding scribes: “Read a lot. Read and write. Just try. Don’t undermine yourself and say you can’t do it.” She herself has no set writing habits. “I grab whatever time I have. Wherever, whenever. I try to do it in the morning when the head is clear but sometimes, I can’t.” Her current read is Tinkers by Paul Harding.
Kono is now working on another novel, Misao’s Body, a project she actually started before the origins of Anshu. Hopefully it won’t be another decade before we get to read it.